When Kevin Harvick graduated from kindergarten, his parents bought him a go-kart. Little did they realize at the time what a prophetic present they were giving their son. By age 10, so the story goes, Harvick had listed taking part in both the Indy 500 and the Winston Cup Series as career goals in a school project. It took another 16 years of trying, but he would finally achieve his dream of driving at the top echelon of NASCAR at Rockingham in February 2001 – albeit in the worst of all possible circumstances.
But Harvick has long conquered the difficulty of replacing a legend to become a star in his own right. After five races of 2008, he’s sitting pretty in third in the standings, just 33 back from leader Kyle Busch while making a push to be a major title contender. It may be ridiculously early to start thinking about who could be the champ – a fact not lost on someone like Jeff Gordon, for whom a 400-point lead and an average finishing position of 5.2 in the Chase last year was not good enough – but if you’re looking for drivers who might pick up the biggest crown in NASCAR, you could do a lot worse than considering the driver of the No. 29 Chevy. So, why might 2008 be Harvick’s year? Here are five reasons why…
1) He has the experience
Harvick has a total of 11 wins, 50 top fives and 105 top 10s in 255 starts at the Sprint Cup level. Or, to put it another way, he’s garnered at least a top 10 in 40% of his races; so, however you look at things it’s clear Harvick has the consistency to make a sustained challenge at the top. Let’s take a look back at the four most recent champions, and compare how long it took them to win their first title…
- Tony Stewart – 140 starts
- Matt Kenseth – 148 starts
- Kurt Busch – 150 starts
- Jimmie Johnson – 183 starts
A cursory glance at the above table might imply that Harvick is already a touch behind the eight-ball, but I’d argue that he’s just coming into his own. Making the Chase these past two years has given him a taste of what he needs to do, and he’s been there and done that at every track on the circuit; there’s only three active tracks where Harvick’s yet to score a top five in Cup (California, Martinsville and Kansas). So, in many ways he’s got the perfect blend of experience and driving know how to sustain a title tilt; and considering the stats, he’s overdue to cash in on his budding championship bid.
2) He can win the big races
It’s not just the top 10s and that all-important consistency that makes a champion; it’s proving you can win on stock car racing’s largest stages. Harvick has done just that; I still marvel as to how he came from so far back to win last year’s Daytona 500. But that’s not all; in 2003, Harvick won the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis where he (cough) delighted the traditionalists with a super smoky burnout. Last year, he was in position to add a second Brickyard trophy before losing the lead to Stewart with less than 10 laps to go. He’s also won the All-Star Race, not to mention wins at Bristol and Atlanta – two tracks the aficionados would agree show your ability as a “drivers'” driver.
In comparison, only Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott and Johnson have won the trifecta of the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the All-Star Race in their careers. That’s a pretty exclusive list of NASCAR legends; Harvick is the only one on it without a Cup title to his name.
3) He has the equipment
In 2004 and 2005, RCR failed to put a single car in the Chase. But things began to change in 2006, when both Harvick and Jeff Burton made the final field of 10; after a prolonged slump, both engineering and experience began to pay off for the onetime championship program. That allowed RCR to go one step further last year, with all three drivers securing spots in the 2007 Chase. This uptick in performance has shown no signs of abating in 2008, with all three Childress drivers safely ensconced in the top 12 at the moment; and although Burton will consider himself fortunate to have visited victory lane at Bristol, a win is still a win, regardless of whether you lead every lap or just the last inch of the race. Plus, having your drivers finish 1-2-3 is a statement of intent… however you look at it.
4) He understands the vagaries of the Chase…
After two straight years of making the Chase, Harvick now knows what it takes to win. In 2006, he went into the final race of the season with a mathematical chance of winning it all but was, as he would probably admit, a long shot. Last year, he didn’t have anything like the consistency needed to match either of the Hendrick cars, and his Chase was over before it began. But as the old adage goes, “you have to be in it to win it;” so, just by taking part, Harvick will have a much greater understanding of the different type of racing you need to consider as a Chaser. This experience can only serve him well for 2008… and beyond.
5) He’s faced down arguably the biggest challenge of them all already
It’s doubtful that any NASCAR driver in history has had a tougher test than stepping into Dale Senior’s ride after that fateful day at Daytona in 2001. One week later, the pressure to succeed must have weighed so heavy on the young driver who, until Earnhardt’s passing, was tabbed to run in the Busch Series full-time. Matters were made worse by the weather, and after two days of rain, Harvick must have been climbing up the wall in frustration of his first start behind the wheel. But when the race finally got underway at Rockingham, he recorded a credible 14th-place finish, a miraculous performance considering the circumstances. He followed it up with an eighth place in Vegas – then came the race of his career at Atlanta. If you’re new to the sport, go back and watch the last 10 laps of the 2001 Cracker Barrel 500. If anyone had any doubts as to the mental makeup of the Bakersfield, Calif. native, then this race answered them once and for all. As many as five cars battled for the lead in the closing stages, driving all over the multi-groove track; but it’s the inexperienced Harvick who pulled off the win, outlasting a charging Gordon by just six thousandths of a second. Harvick stated that day that he felt the presence of Dale Senior in his car, helping to pull him to a famous victory. Whatever the reasoning, Harvick’s place with RCR was assured, and he’s been their No. 1 driver ever since.
The trouble is that experience, the big-race savvy, the equipment, and the unquestioned support of both owner Richard Childress and wife, Delana, can only take Harvick so far. In the end, it’s the “intangibles” that will push him over the edge. Look up “sheer bloody-mindedness” in the dictionary and you’ll see a picture of Harvick; his fierce determination is legendary, and while it sometimes spills over into spells of madness, this special mentality is just what you need to be a winner.
But the biggest intangible of all – that little slice of luck – is something not even the best prepared can legislate for, the X-factor in Harvick’s 2008 title quest. Still, as the great Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “I am a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.” For Harvick, the hard work is without question; whether or not he gets that vital racing luck remains to be seen.